Let’s Make Academic Records More Informative

Let me suggest something that perhaps we can all agree on, convictions about IQ aside. We need a higher education system that produces much more accurate information about the students it enrolls and educates.

The standard degree consists of only two useful pieces of information printed on a single sheet of paper: the type of degree and the institution attended. Given the vast differences between degrees of similar types and between the qualities of students who graduate from similar institutions, this isn’t a lot for employers or anyone else to go on. So they fall back on what they can infer. For the small minority of students who attend selective institutions, it’s the up-front sorting process. For everyone else, it’s the generalized diligence and intelligence required to amass 60 or 120 credits. The vagueness of these signals makes it hard to pin down the nuances of the interaction between people, colleges, and life outcomes, and thus contributes to the lack of hard data that confuses discussions like the one we’re having here. College transcripts have limited value, because the evaluation process that determines grades is completely non-standardized and unreliable, as is the process for defining and naming courses themselves.

What if, by contrast, college students were able to produce detailed, reliable information about (a) the content of their courses and (b) what they had actually learned? That would pave the way for more sensible variance in degree length. Right now, with degrees based not on learning but on the spent time having been taught, a four-year degree is presumed to be twice as good as a two-year degree—regardless of what it is in or where it is from. If students could prove what they had learned over three years, for example, they’d be able to take that information into the job market with much more confidence. Indeed, attaching real information to course credits might even obviate the need for “degrees” in the traditional sense of the word. Courses, probably earned from a variety of providers, would become the new coin of the realm.

This would also create a market for the kind of third-party certifiers that I think Charles is envisioning, which might be based on vocational tests, but must also be based on many other criteria. This kind of system would likely lead to more specialization among institutions in those academic areas where they have a competitive advantage—something I assume the economists here would support. And this isn’t a fantasy; countries in Europe and elsewhere have been engaged in efforts over the last decade featuring many of these aims via the Bologna process and its “degree framework,” “diploma supplement” and “tuning” processes. (They’re keeping a standard degree framework: 3 years for a bachelor’s, 5 for a master’s.) 

As long as we maintain public policies focused on maintaining access and quality—as long as all students have a fair chance to access high-quality college teaching at a reasonably low price, regardless of their socioeconomic background—I’d certainly be willing to open up the higher education system to experimentation and innovation on the degree and credit information side of things and see what happens.

Perhaps many students would opt out of the traditional four-year track, perhaps not. The important thing is that we wouldn’t decide for them ahead of time by narrowing their educational options prematurely.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray draws from his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, to argue against America’s obsession with the four-year BA degree. Murray argues that the BA “wreaks harm on a majority of young people, is grotesquely inefficient as a source of information for employers, and is implicated in the emergence of a class-riven America.” Murray contends that vocational training and a new regime of certification testing would provide a superior alternative to a college degree for many high school grads.

Response Essays

  • Economist Pedro Carneiro of University College London — an authority on the relationship between education, human capital, and wages — agrees with much of Murray’s argument, but questions its relevance. Some people may be making a mistake in pursuing a BA, but it’s not a very big mistake, Carneiro says. “For most of those enrolling in college, a BA has a good expected return, but there is some risk,” and not notably more risk than with other investments. The real worry, Carneiro argues, is that stagnation in college enrollments “may cause problems for [economic] growth in the years to come.”

  • George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan agrees with Charles Murray’s claims that not everyone is suited to college, that four years is too long, and that few career-relevant skills are learned there. But then what explains the wage premium for college grads? Caplan notes that Murray flirts with a “signaling” model but argues he needs to take it more seriously. But then why haven’t certification test already caught on, Caplan wonders. Why don’t employers already cut out the college middle man and directly hire top high school grads? “An unfortunate implication of the signaling model is that cutting the BA down to size will be a lot harder than Murray thinks. As far as employers are concerned, the BA works.”

  • Kevin Carey, research and policy manager for Education Sector, argues that the “mass production of bachelor’s degrees” in the 20th century gave the United States one of the world’s best-educated labor forces, and all signs point to the stunning success of mass higher education. Carey says that Murray “does not come close” to showing that the “BA is the work of the devil.” If an alternative system of certification testing made sense, Carey argues, we would expect to see it already, but we don’t because “employers value the bachelor’s degree.” The flexibility of the American system, which allows students to get a good general education without committing to narrow vocational training, is one of its strengths. And so many drop out of college, Cary maintains, not because they are unprepared or unable to benefit, but because the academic environment and teaching are often discouragingly low. “The bachelor’s degree represents the best of American opportunity,” Carey writes. “We need to make it better, not tear it down.”